JAZZ: Scott DeVeaux, W.W. Norton & Company


How does Ellington use timbre?

The whole question of thinking about what it is that Ellington is doing musically – you can talk about harmony, you can talk about rhythm, but mostly what people get at is the sounds that he's able to produce. I think this is partly his genius at orchestration but it's also his ability to listen to what jazz musicians are doing and to realize that scoring a piece of music does not simply mean saying, "Here are all the saxophones, I'm going to arrange for them," and in fact any number of saxophonists could fill that particular slot of just putting in the music where, you know, so that anybody could play it. Cause I think in some ways how the Fletcher Henderson [band] work[s], they're sort of, "Anybody can play this," and sound like they're swinging because they're working that way. Ellington was more listening to individual sounds, unusual sounds, and realizing that he could use those to create completely new sounds. He gets this from the Cotton Club, where he is working to create shows, and in some ways this is how he works within racial stereotypes. It was understood to be, depending on your framework, it could be heard as exotic stuff, as if it were coming from Africa if you so choose. And this is part of the Cotton Club mystique, that somehow this stuff is coming from what they call "jungle style."

But Ellington was more thinking down home. He was listening to the bluesy sound of people like Bubba Miley; he was listening to Tricky Sam Nanton's extraordinary, bizarre sound with the trombone, with two different mutes and growling to produce that sort of [Deveaux demonstrates] kind of sound. And he was realizing that if he put those sounds together he had something that no other band could imitate. And this really was the case. People could not figure out how to get those particular sounds. He is using timbre, sometimes in ways that [are] very open and dramatic but other times in ways that [are] very subtle actually. You just hear a general sound [and] you can't really figure out how he's managed to get that particular sound, but it is some combination of both straight orchestration, like he loved to use baritone saxophone in interesting ways, but in other ways using the particular sounds that he had in his band in interesting ways. It's absolutely fascinating.